Monday, August 28, 2017

Father Riley's homily for August 27, 2017

12 PENTECOST - PROPER XVI - A - 17     MATTHEW 16.13-20

Prior to his asking the two questions in today’s gospel, Jesus has healed many who had been brought to him, the lame, the blind, the mute, the maimed, in essence fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. Then he fed 4000 with just 7 loaves and a few fishes much to the astonishment of his disciples as well as those who were fed. Afterwards he was approached by the scribes and Pharisees who came to test him by asking for a “sign.”
Obviously, they had heard of the miraculous feeding and of His ability to heal, the most dreaded of diseases now they wanted him to perform a sign for them. Jesus refuses. Taking his disciples aside, he warns them of the “leaven” of the Pharisees and the scribes, meaning their teaching. It is after all of this that Jesus and his disciples retreat into the district of Caesarea Philippi.
This district was far north of the land of Israel, well outside the territory of King Herod and a good two days walk from the Sea of Galilee. There were no scribes or Pharisees to test him. Instead, Jesus “tests” the disciples. The two questions posed by Jesus are recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels and mark a turning point in the story of Jesus.
From this point on Jesus begins to speak of his destiny in terms of his suffering and death, rather than speaking only in terms of the coming of the kingdom of God. In asking the first question “Who do people say that the Son of Man is; Jesus must have known the answer he would get, but he wanted the disciples to say it out loud.
This tells us a good deal of how the people perceived Jesus. The answer the disciples gave was a varied one. Some said John the Baptist, at least Herod thought so. Some said Elijah. Jewish tradition expected that Elijah would return in the last days to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Some said Jeremiah, because it was he who predicted the establishment of the new covenant and Jesus’ words mirrored the language of the new covenant.
Others said one of the prophets, or the prophet. The prophet would have significance since Deut. 18.15-22 promised God would send one greater than Moses. Upon hearing the disciple’s answers of his first question, Jesus then asks ‘But who do you say that I am?”
It is the greatest question a person can ever face, for it is the question that defines Christianity. Peter takes on the role as spokesman, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Obviously some of the things that Jesus had been doing (miracles) and saying had puzzled the disciples up to this point with a perplexity that would only be resolved after the resurrection. What Peter is saying here was that Jesus was the true king. That he was the one that Israel had been waiting for. That he was the one the Psalms and Prophets had predicted.
Peter’s response was a divine illumination of the moment; a God-given answer. However, we see just a few verses later when Jesus announces his death in Jerusalem that Peter reverts to a very human response. Here, however, Jesus seems to reward him by giving him the name “rock.”
On this “rock” Jesus says, he will build his church. The ‘rock” refers not to Peter per se, but to the faith of his confession. The true rock is Christ himself. The faith of Peter expressed in his confession of Christ as the Son of the living God would be and is the foundation for Christ’ new community - the Church.
That is what Jesus came to build, a community consisting of all of those who would give their allegiance to him as God’s anointed. Peter’ reply, then, affirms two great truths concerning Jesus - his divine son ship and his messiah ship. The “rock” the church is built on is Peter’s faith in both.
Peter still has much to learn, as do, all of the Apostles, but this is part of the process of becoming what God intended for them to be. After all, Jesus’ new community consists of forgiven sinners. God has led Peter to faith through his experience of the lord. Peter has a place in the purpose of God.
And the purpose comes next in the text. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The Jewish rabbis of Jesus’ day had the power to pronounce what was forbidden and what was permitted according to the Law of Moses. They did not have the power to add to it or subtract from it. These decisions, according to Jewish tradition, were acknowledged in heaven.
The power of the Church to bind and loose is a power to interpret the law of Christ, and likewise not a power to add to it or subtract from it. The “keys” Jesus is giving to Peter and ultimately to the rest of the Apostles, is the authority to “teach” and discipline the new community that would spring up after Pentecost.
At Pentecost, all of the Apostles would be empowered as stewards of the mysteries of God, becoming scribes of the kingdom, with the power to interpret God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our answer, then, to the question of Jesus “who do you say that I am,” marks a turning point in our lives. Through the gift of faith we proclaim Christ as the Son of the living God. Our eyes are opened to the discovery that each of us has a place in God’s purpose in bringing salvation to the world.
The world we live in today is a dark and scary place. The international scene is filled with wars and rumors of war. Extremists in the name of religion carry out destructive acts that claim both life and property. On the home front, our country is sorely divided both politically and socially to the point that we stand on the verge of imploding. Right thinking, sanity, and justice need to prevail in the wake of hatred, distrust, and disrespect.
Yet it would appear as if our Christian witness has been silenced. Jesus’ question is a test of our faith. Where is the Christian witness today? Why don’t all who profess faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God stand up for peace?
Isaiah warns in the first lesson that one day the heavens will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment. Need we remind ourselves that we are living between Advents? We are in a waiting period.
However, our waiting is not to be one of inactivity but one of witnessing to the saving grace and love of God in Christ. Thus, St. Paul exhorts us in his letter to the church at Rome not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God - what is good, acceptable and perfect, and then do it.
Jesus came to build a community of faith. He willingly gave His life on the hardwood of the cross that it might continue to grow. He sent the gift of the Holy Spirit, not only to unify us as members of His Body the Church in our profession and witness of our faith in Him both as our Lord and the One whom God has sent to bring salvation to all, but more importantly to have the courage to proclaim Him as such.
Pray then that God will grant us His grace that we might fulfill our place in His divine purpose by showing forth the power of His Love among all peoples, to the Glory of His name, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  AMEN+

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from August 20, 2017

11 PENTECOST - PROPER XV - A - 17    MATTHEW 15. 21-28


Today’s gospel stands in contrast to last week’s not only in terms of faith but also in terms of the scene. In last week’s gospel Jesus chides Peter, his chosen disciple, for his “little faith” when he lost focus and began to sink into the Sea of Galilee.
Peter and the other disciples who were present had just witnessed Jesus’ feeding of the 5000. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was an impressive demonstration of Christ’ power over nature. However, it would appear that his miraculous powers in feeding so many with so little had done nothing to increase the faith of his chosen.
Today’s scene is much different. Not only is it on dry land, but in a foreign land. The area is North of Palestine on the Mediterranean coast in present day Lebanon. Jesus and his disciples have retreated to the district of Tyre, and Sidon, after His having refuted the scribes and Pharisees’ teaching concerning ritual purity. For his efforts, they rejected Him.
The population of the district, at the time of Jesus, was composed of predominantly Gentiles who were descendants of the ancient Canaanite people. They were the original inhabitants of the land, but were eventually subdued by the Israelites upon Israel entering the Promised Land.
Here Jesus is confronted by a Gentile woman who persists in her having him heal her daughter. At first, he ignores her. Then the disciples rebuke her. Then Jesus says that he was not sent to her, implying her race and her people. Nevertheless, she throws herself at his feet and asks for his help.
She knows her place and only asks for the “crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Jesus is impressed and proclaims her faith as being “great,” and for that, her daughter is healed instantly.
Hatred, prejudice and racism have once again raised their ugly heads here in our own country. Racial identity continues to be one of the great moral and cultural issues of the day not only here but also throughout the world. It was no different in Jesus’ day.
The Roman occupiers despised the Jews in Palestine however; they tolerated them and their religious leaders as long as they helped maintain the status quo. The Jews, likewise despised the Romans as well as those they deemed to be “outsiders,” namely the Gentiles and non-believers.
Jesus came along and through his preaching and teaching challenged all hatred, all social distinctions, all prejudice. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “God so loved the world,” St. John writes, “that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” All Jesus said may come to Him. All St. John writes who believe in Him will be saved.
Therefore, when we read today’s gospel we find it to be a bit disturbing. It looks as though from the beginning that Jesus is refusing to help someone in need just because she is from the wrong race. It all seems so strange. What is going on here?
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’ mission is not to those outside Israel. This woman is a Gentile. Christ came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They were and are God’s chosen people. Something we modern day Christians sometimes forget.
God chose them to be the promise-bearers through whom His Word, and the new life, would be brought to the rest of the world. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. He came to fulfill the purpose for which this people existed in the first place.
If God’s new life were to come to the world, it would come through Israel. That is why Israel had to hear the message first. That is why Jesus limited his work almost entirely to the Jewish people. Jesus inaugurated God‘s kingdom representing the fullness of it, and yet not yet.
But as we see in our reading of the gospels there are occurrences when the future keeps breaking into the present, as it does in today’s passage. The Canaanite woman cannot wait for the great commission to be carried out (Mt. 28.19). She presses Jesus to make it happen now. She has faith he can heal her daughter.
She addresses him with the Jewish Messianic title “Son of David.” She understands that God’s chosen people are to be the promise-bearers and that she is not one of them. However, she insists on her point, that if this is true, God’s Messiah will ultimately bring blessings to the whole world. That even the “little dogs” will share in those blessings.
Jesus is both moved and impressed by her “great” faith, especially in light of his having recently been rejected by the “faithless” Pharisees and scribes. The woman’s faith broke through the waiting period, the time when Jesus would come to Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah be killed and raised again, and then send his followers out into all the world. The disciples and perhaps Jesus himself are not yet ready for Calvary. However, this foreign woman, this outsider, is already insisting on Easter.
To be a Christian in today’s world calls for us to not only focus on Jesus but also his teachings and the commandments of God. The challenge that faces us, in light of recent events that have magnified the prejudice and hate that continues to permeate our society, is nothing less than our putting into practice the first and great commandment - to love God, and our neighbor as our self.
To love one’s neighbor as oneself is based on the belief that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus are equal, irrespective of race and color. That Jesus Christ died for all, so that all might live through him. There is no limit, then, to the Church’s mission. It is to be extended to wherever it encounters faith.
Our God is a God of Love and not hate, and by His grace, we can put His commandments and the teachings of Christ into practice by being faithful in following the blessed steps of his most holy life. With God’s help we can put love into action within actual societies, where people from very different backgrounds and cultures can live together in peace and harmony. To do so is to reflect the true image of the kingdom of God.
This we might have imagined would one day be fulfilled in a distant future, but it is something that needs to be claimed in the present with a prayer and a faith, like that of the Canaanite woman, that refuses to be put off. AMEN+

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Father Riley's sermon for August 13, 2017

10 PENTECOST - PROPER XIV - A - 17     MATTHEW 14. 22-33
As a rector, I taught First Holy Communion classes to 7-10 years as prerequisite to their becoming acolytes. I recall the beginning of one such class when a precocious lad raised his hand and asked that since I was a priest he guessed that I just sat around all day and thought about God. I confessed that is not always the case.
How many times during the course of a normal day to we stop and think about God? If we are honest, we must confess that our focus is mostly on self; something we need, something we need to be doing, and when we are older, something we have forgotten! Our focus is not always on God.
Today’s gospel scene takes place on water. It follows Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 where he demonstrated his power over nature. He demonstrates it again in his “walking on water” and the stilling of the wind. After the miraculous feeding, Jesus sends his disciples back across the sea to Galilee while he remains to dismiss the crowd.
When the people have dispersed, Christ goes up on the mountain to pray and be with God. The disciples had been gone for some time but were struggling to cross the lake for the wind was against them. They struggled all night it seems without much headway.
It was almost dawn when Jesus appeared to them walking on water. By this time, they were sorely tired having strained for hours against the wind and the waves. When they saw Jesus, they did not recognize him; for they were not expecting him, but thought what they were seeing was a ghost. They were afraid and cried out.
Then Jesus spoke to them in order to clam their fear. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter thought he recognized Jesus’ voice. So, Peter asks, “Lord, if it is you,” still doubting, “bid me come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.”
At first, Peter dismissed the wind and the waves keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus. As long as he did, he was able to overcome the natural and physical elements and do the impossible. However, when he diverted his attention, when he saw the waves, felt the spray in his face, and looked down, he became afraid and began to sink crying out to Jesus to save him.
Peter lost focus. He let his fear override what little faith he had when he first stepped out of the boat. Jesus saves him of course but chides him for his lack of faith. Note Peter did not ask to “walk on water,” but to “come to Jesus.” He wanted to be with Jesus.
We can’t physically be with Jesus as the disciples were. However, we can “be with Jesus” in our thoughts and our prayers. We can be with Jesus when we focus our attention on him. To do so is to set aside the distractions of life. That is not an easy thing to do when we have so many things we are normally engaged in on a daily basis.
Yet all the more reason for each of us to find time during the course of the day “to be with Jesus.” In 1986, a seminary classmate and I decided to go on a Lenten retreat. That would usually mean to a monastery where a directed retreat would be conducted. We chose the Jesuit center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.
It was a 17 day, silent, Ignatius retreat. Upon entering the monastery, we were met by the retreat master who assigned us our rooms and gave us a schedule. Then, he took our watches. The daily schedule was one that revolved around prayer and worship and a set time to meet with a spiritual director who assigned us a passage of scripture for our daily meditation.
We were expected to keep a journal and to write down our thoughts based on the passage of scripture that had been given to us and then share those thoughts with our director during the course of the day. Our time there was intended to be a private retreat; one designed to be alone with God.
The surroundings were beautiful. Some 300 hundred acres was ours to roam to stop and pray to sit and meditate and to write down our thoughts, in other words, “to be with Jesus,” without the normal distractions of daily life. The first few days, I admit, were difficult. I felt I should be doing something else or that I should be somewhere else and I often found myself looking at my naked wrist in order to check the time.
It was hard to focus on something besides myself and turn my sole attention to God. I was like Elijah in today’s first lesson struggling to hear God’s voice. After the first two or three days, I learned to do just that and was amazed at how the scriptures spoke to me. My journal quickly filled and my prayers deepened. What a peaceful experience. What a feeling of calmness within.
My time there became a sacramental experience. It gave me a slight foretaste of what it will mean to “be with Jesus” for all eternity. I learned to be absorbed in spiritual concentration. I can imagine now what eternity means in contrast with time, and what the eternal presence of Christ may mean when human distractions have been left behind.
Alas, the day came for our departure and neither one of us wanted to leave. I know now how Peter felt on top of the Mount of Transfiguration when he wanted to remain with Jesus. What I learned from that experience is that one does not have to go on a directed retreat to “be with Jesus.” No, what we have to learn to do is to focus on him whenever and wherever we are by letting go of life’s distractions.
The gospel calls us to look outward and not inward. We do that by giving Him our concerns, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. Jesus is not only present to us in the storms of life, he is always present as he promised and his presence is real, not some shadowy experience. It is we who have to learn to make ourselves present to Him by letting go of the things that crowd our thoughts so that we can focus our attention on Him.
When we do so we discover that His presence brings peace and composure; courage returns, and forward movement is possible. The wind ceased as did the disciple’s fear when Jesus got into the boat with them. The disciple’s fear is transformed into hope, faith, and eventually love for the one who makes his presence known to them.
How does this story work for us? The story is a picture of the life of faith, or rather, the life of half-faith, faith mixed with fear and doubt which is the typical state of so many of us, as it was for the disciples.
“You of little faith.” Often we do suffer from too little faith. However, the matter is not remedied by sitting ourselves down and resolving to have more faith. To do so is to focus more and more upon ourselves and less and less upon God, as Peter did when he attempted to approach Jesus on the water.
Again the gospel calls us to look outward and not inward, and thus to behold the glory of God, who is our help. To know the closeness of Jesus is a central insight of the Christian faith. But if we over emphasize that affinity of Jesus to us as human beings we are in danger of losing something important.
The One we address as Christ is not merely a human companion with us on our journey of faith, but the source and sustenance of our faith. Thus, we do not produce faith by deciding to have more of it. But, as we witness and identify God’s love again and again, faith springs from within and flourishes.
There are many times when God in Christ asks us to do what seems impossible. How can we even begin to do the task he has called us to do? Of course, if like Peter we look at the waves being lashed by the wind, we will conclude that it is indeed impossible.
What we are called to do is so basic and obvious, but so hard to do in practice and that is, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and our ears open for his words of encouragement. And our wills and our hearts ready to do what he says, even if it seems impossible at the time.
That is what it means to be with Jesus now, and by God’s grace live according to His will with the hope of one day being where He is for all eternity. AMEN+

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Bishop's visit and confirmations August, 6, 2017

A great visit from The Rt. Rev. Jacob W. Owensby, Ph.D., D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Western Louisiana, we had this past Sunday as he confirmed Sonia Hartner and John Godfrey to our Episcopal congregation.  We also enjoyed our annual congregational dinner with the Bishop and celebrated the confirmands Sonia and John.

Bishop Jake, Father Gregg, and acolyte Allie (the haze is not for effect....the humidity was 200%):

Bishop Jake, Father Gregg, Sonia, John, and Allie:

Planning the service: Bishop Jake, Sonia, and John:

Congregational dinner in the parish hall